Can we really be positive in bad situations?
I have never been totally happy, no pun intended, with positive psychology’s approach to objectively bad situations. I am totally persuaded by our ability to make the best of good situation. I am persuaded by our contribution to sort-of-bad situations. I am persuaded that in a terminal situation, we may as well be happy. I can also point you towards little experiments that cost you nothing but your time and that you can try on your own.
Where positive psychology might have little to offer
But there are three situations where I am not persuaded positive psychology can help us much, though in truth, nothing much helps in these situations.
First, when you are in a bad situation alone, and I mean socially alone. I haven’t looked closely at being physically alone.
Second, when other people will harm you, unless you harm them first.
Third, when you have experienced sustained social abuse and your fight/flight mechanism is on a hair trigger.
Thinking about tragedy with movies
I watched a Scottish movie over the weekend, 16 Years of Alcohol, that illustrated a combination of these three situations. The protagonist grew up with an alcoholic father and joined a gang. While he was generally terrorizing the neighborhood, he met a girl and was motivated to change his life. The story is about his intelligent and thoughtful attempts and ultimately his death on the streets.
We can compare this story to Goodbye Mr Chips, which I watched last weekend, and the well known movie about hope, Shawshank Redemption. In Shawshank, we have a protagonist who out-thinks and outwits people and is able to leave the situation by tunneling out of the jail. In Goodbye Mr Chips, the protagonist has a mentor who is slightly above the situation and he is able to grow himself and ultimately change the environment around him. Put this starkly, I think you already see the shape of my point.
In 16 Years of Alcohol, the agent of change, a young woman, was a resource but not sufficient to change the situation for the protagonist. And importantly, he did not exit the situation. I’m afraid he should have left town!
Where is hope in a hopeless place?
The protagonist asks himself at one point: where is hope in a hopeless place? There was an excellent line though where the young lady suggests to the protagonist that the past does not come looking for him – that he went looking for the past. And he talks about stopping the past leaking into your heart. These are good points – with slightly more resources and slightly less stress, he might have made it.
Extreme hardship and an abiding memory of struggle and courage
This is a realistic account of dealing with extreme hardship. If you are interested in using positive psychology to move on from bad places, you should have a look. Though a tragedy and not a feel good movie, you are left with an abiding memory of struggle and courage. It is a respectful account of people brought up in the hardest places in our society.